Sid the Kid's shootout winner puts team three points behind first-place New Jersey

Freeze-frame finish gives NHL, NBC a story line to savor and promote, but players happier about continued climb in Atlantic Division standings

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The memories, those will last forever for the Penguins.

They aren't going to forget playing before the largest crowd in National Hockey League history. Or the helicopter flyover, the bagpipe escort they got to the ice for the pregame warm-up or the fireworks launched from the top of the Ralph Wilson Stadium.

But what matters most to them about their 2-1 shootout victory yesterday against Buffalo, at least for now, is that they have won five of their past six games, raised their record to 21-16-2 and solidified their place in the Eastern Conference playoff pack.

Forget the stories they will tell the grandkids someday. Climbing to within three points of first-place New Jersey in the Atlantic Division means a lot more at this moment.

"It was nice to get that win," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "No one's going to lie. We both wanted it. It kind of keeps our team rolling."

A crowd of 71,217 the largest for an NHL game, watched the game in person and nearly everyone stayed in -- or in front of -- their seats until the outcome was decided.

"When I looked around, there didn't seem to be an empty seat," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.

It isn't known yet how many people watched NBC's broadcast of the game, which was billed as the "Winter Classic," but network executives probably couldn't have scripted a better finish for casual viewers because Sidney Crosby, the league's marquee player, scored the shootout goal that secured the victory.

"Especially with Sid getting the winner, I thought it was a good ending," Penguins right winger Colby Armstrong said.

With the shootout tied, 1-1 -- Ales Kotalik had scored for the Sabres, Kris Letang for the Penguins -- Crosby moved in on Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, flashed a series of moves and then tossed the puck between his legs.

"I thought I made a good play to stay with him," Miller said. "I don't think he made quite the play he wanted to, but it worked out for him."

Penguins officials, who have had internal discussions about playing host to an outdoor game at some point, seemed satisfied with how the day played out, as did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. He released a statement in which he said outdoor games are "obviously ... something we're going to look at doing again."

That doesn't mean this game came off without any significant snags. There were numerous delays, some of them extended, while snow was removed from the playing surface and repairs were made to places where chunks of ice had been gouged out.

"That was something we all expected, especially with the snow and stuff," Penguins goalie Ty Conklin said. "Cleaning it off was something they had to do."

Conklin finished with 36 saves and made it clear that he and Miller had it easier than most of the participants.

"There wasn't too much that was really overly difficult for the goalies," he said. "It was a lot more difficult for the forwards and the offensive guys."

A couple of Penguins forwards made it look pretty easy during the first shift of the game, as Armstrong threw a Crosby rebound behind Miller just 21 seconds after the opening faceoff.

"It just popped right to me," Armstrong said.

That goal stood up until 1:25 of the second period, when Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell beat Conklin from inside the right dot.

Neither team was able to score again through the end of regulation, but Armstrong picked up a hooking minor on a fairly marginal call as time expired to give Buffalo a power play at the start of overtime.

"I was pretty rattled about that," he said. "I'm not going to say anything about it, but I wasn't too happy about it.

"I had a lot of time to sit there [in the penalty box] and think about it while they were scraping the ice. It wasn't the most fun place to be. It's cold and lonely, for sure."

The Penguins killed his penalty, though, and ultimately took the game into a shootout. At which time they got a victory and NBC got a story line that figured to have widespread appeal.

"It couldn't have worked out better for [NBC]," Whitney said. "They got the snowfall, they got Sidney to end the game. That's just what they wanted."

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published January 2, 2008 5:00 AM


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